Reading Steve Almond’s short fiction collections in relatively rapid succession is a little bit like listening to your favorite band evolve over the course of several albums. The movement from Almond’s My Life in Heavy Metal to The Evil B.B. Chow to his latest, God Bless America, is akin, for example, to listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sergeant Pepper in the order they were recorded. All of this is a complicated way of saying that as good as each of Almond’s fiction titles is — as honest, as compelling, as attuned to the mysteries of the human heart — the next still manages to break new ground and go new places. Almond, in short, is still capable of not just wowing his readers but of surprising them as well.
What’s especially striking about this collection is that it sees Almond exploring and at times pushing the boundary between the real and the surreal. Early on, he presents the story of a would-be tax preparer whose love of acting gets him tangled up in a Boston-tea-party-themed drug ring. Elsewhere, a dying patriarch takes cues from a hallucinatory bird as he struggles to offer fatherly advice to his mostly estranged son. And then, of course, there’s the American accountant who finds himself all but trapped by a Sheik in a luxury hotel in the United Arab Emirates. Given the current political and cultural landscape in the United States, the odd turns in this collection feel entirely appropriate: surreal times call for surreal fiction.
Although things tend to take a turn for the strange throughout God Bless America, Almond’s characteristic fondness for humanity and its myriad competing desires continues to drive his fiction. Indeed, the author comes of first and foremost as a student of the human condition. Throughout the collection, he depicts a wide range of characters doing their utmost to do well by each other — the mother struggling with her son’s PTSD, the young waiter trying to keep an unhinged customer happy — while simultaneously trying to eke out a small modicum of happiness for themselves. In this sense, the book is highly realistic.
We are a hopeful species, Almond is at pains to illustrate in each story. More to the point, however, his stories suggest that our hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, is actually warranted. Life is strange and frequently challenging, but on the whole, life is also ultimately good.
-Review by Marc Schuster